Notable Acquisition: Inlaid Bowl with Nilotic Scene

Hear from Chief Conservator Stephen Koob on the conservation of an ancient glass bowl and learn more about the object from Karol Wight, executive director and curator of ancient and Islamic glass.

Hemispherical Bowl with Inlaid Nilotic Scene, Roman, 4th–5th century A.D. Cast, inlaid, polished. Overall H: 4.4 cm; Diam (max): 20.2 cm (2012.1.1, purchased in part with funds from the Ennion Society and the Houghton Endowment Fund).
The decoration of this shallow bowl is called a “Nilotic scene” because it depicts flowers and animals unique to the Nile River Valley. In a beautiful arrangement across the dark purple background of the interior, eight different birds are depicted, among them a flamingo, a heron, ducks, and possibly a partridge. An eight-winged dragonfly is also shown. Care was taken to differentiate the colors of the various birds’ anatomies and feathers—tails, wings, beaks, and feet. The birds are oriented to be seen as if from a single vantage point. In contrast, the colorful flowers, rosettes, and strips of cane scattered around the birds create the illusion of a watery environment seen from above. The flowers include Nelumbo lotuses and rosette- and heart-shaped buds and seedpods. Ribbon- and x-shaped cane lengths were used to position some of the floral designs, and yellow rosette cane sections with dark, radiating stripes were scattered in the background.

This inlaid glass bowl was made by first creating the purple glass disk for the background. The sections and strips of cane that form the elements of the composition were arranged on the disk, then heated and pressed flat until they were embedded in the purple glass, but did not penetrate to the other side of the disk. The disk was then placed over a mold and slumped to form the curved, bowl shape. After annealing, the bowl was ground and polished; on the underside, a circle was incised.

At the time this bowl was made, similar decorative schemes incorporating the exotic animals and plants of Egypt were popular on floor mosaics and wall decorations in houses throughout the Roman Empire. Luxury bowls were used for drinking parties, and it is easy to imagine that when this bowl was full of wine, the birds and flowers appeared to be floating in the waters of the Nile. Numerous fragments of similar decorated bowls and plates are known (including 59.1.423, showing a bird), but this is the first example that has survived from antiquity nearly intact. Archaeologists have concluded that these vessels, the excavated examples of which come from sites in or associated with Egypt, represent a revival of luxury mosaic glass in the later Roman Empire.

Karol Wight

Inlaid Bowl with Nilotic Scene
Roman Empire, fourth to fifth centuries
Assembled, cast, polished
H. 4.4 cm, Diam. (max.) 20.2 cm
2012.1.1, purchased in part with funds from the Ennion Society and the Houghton Endowment Fund